Soviet chess pieces
Like chess, in Russia and Ukraine the kings are not always the most powerful players

Risks and Opportunities for Russia and Ukraine

As the weather in Ukraine deteriorates the options for significant military maneuver reduce. The first full winter of the conflict will give both sides an opportunity to regroup, and create a lull in the good news/bad news cycle from the battlefield, and chance to train and equip troops, organize supply lines and prepare defensive positions. It is also likely to bring a grim winter of power-cuts to large swathes of the Ukrainian population, as Russia continues to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure. It will also be grim for the troops dug in and under bombardment.

These military realities will have political effects:

  • the winter lull will take much of the rhetorical wind out of the sails of both President Zelensky and President Putin, as less is happening day on day for each of them to be triumphant, outraged or strident about, and therefore less tangible things for them to say to their domestic and international audiences; the winter will be a grind,

  • even the recent Russian withdrawal from Kherson to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River improve’s Russian forces’ ability to defend Crimea, by putting a wide river between them and the Ukrainians. Defending will be easier for Russia than taking more large slices of territory, and defeating Russia altogether remains a hard task for Ukraine: the risk for both Russia and Ukraine is stalemate with neither side able to entirely defeat the other,

  • President Xi of China - who in February may have been interested in Russia’s Ukraine adventure as a tester for his own Taiwan aspirations - seems to have no appetite to see the conflict in Ukraine drag or escalate and encumber China’s economic recovery; the same could be said for President Biden, who survived the mid-terms in better shape than expected but is still under pressure due to inflation and the risk of recession (several Republicans have been calling for an end to financial support for Ukraine altogether): China and the US, as the big backers of the warring parties probably now want all this to stop.

The winter lull may therefore open an opportunity for the geopolitical forces behind the main protagonists to encourage some sort of route to a ceasefire, or at least start the process. Economic recovery in the US and China - early sings of which are visible - will only increase that pressure. Once that opportunity is gone, and Spring allows a big upswing in offensive military action, the game will change again and resolution will once again be harder.

Zelensky makes his first mistake

The first signs of strain became visible between the “collective West”, which is funding and arming Ukraine, and Ukraine’s President Zelensky last week, with the Ukrainian President insisting that the missiles that fell in Poland, killing two people on 16 November were Russian, and that Articles 4 and 5 of the NATO charter should be invoked (i.e.for NATO to collectively defend Poland, one of its members, and implicitly to go on to declare war on Russia).

When the news of the missile strike broke, it caused a flurry of action among world leaders who had just arrived at the G20 in Bali, Indonesia. It seems that after a few early hours calls the leaders of the largest military powers - including President Biden and Prime Minister Sunak - became much more relaxed and a crisis seemed to have been averted. NATO, the US and Poland had quickly investigated and concluded that the missiles were very likely Ukrainian, and the event a horrible accident. President Zelensky, however, carried on with his insistence that it was a deliberately targeted strike by Russia, much to the frustration of Ukraine’s foreign allies, and was consequently met with an unofficial rebuke from the various powers that be.

This comes as a reminder that President Zelensky is an an inexperienced politician, who’s government was incredibly unpopular before Russia’s invasion. Before that invasion there was a civil war bubbling for 8 years in the Dombas, with Ukrainian forces engaged against pro-Russian separatists (and allegedly Russian special forces), which Zelensky did not or could not stop. Ukraine’s President is a great orator, but exhorts to Ukraine’s international supporters over Zoom rather than in person; for a number of reasons he obviously believes it would be unwise for him to leave Ukraine. This is unusual for a wartime leader in the West (think of the extensive wartime travels of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he was seeking international support for the war against Germany in the early 1940’s). It tells us something about Ukraine’s internal politics.

Ukraine is a complex polity, with a number of powerful factions within it. As someone said to me recently, President Zelensky is “an actor, turned actor”. Either way, he has just made his first diplomatic mistake by irritating his allies as a degree of Ukraine-fatigue sets in.

Biden and Xi go dating

On 14 November President Biden met President Xi in Bali, at the G20, for what appeared to be a positive discussion: the official White House “read out” of the meeting said that President Biden had made it clear to President Xi that: “The United States will continue to compete vigorously with the PRC”……but that “this competition should not veer in to conflict”, maintaining that both sides have a “responsibility” to prevent such a conflict occurring. The other main area of agreement was that Russia’s implicit threat to use nuclear weapons was unacceptable. By all accounts this was a much friendlier entente than could have been expected earlier in the year.

President Xi, now anointed in his unique third term as leader of the Communist Party has clearly decided that the partnership “without limits” between Russia and China declared in February - mere days before the invasion of Ukraine - does in fact have some limits, particularly if Russia makes an embarrassing hash of its attempts to recover its former empire. Global economy, growing Chinese power, a longer term plan being required to reunify China (i.e. PRC to re-absorb Taiwan) are all more important. Before meeting President Biden, President Xi received a visit from German Chancellor Olaf Sholz, who is clearly an economic pragmatist keen to expand economic ties with China.

As recently as the summer President Putin intended to be at the G20 in Bali, but such has been the military and associated PR failure of Russia’s “special military operation” that he is both in risk of being ostracized by his erstwhile friends and (in public at least), and is perhaps nervous of leaving the Kremlin for too long.

Politics for Russian and Ukrainian leaders has always been a dangerous sport; the longer this goes on the more one would think it could end badly for at least one of the current incumbents.

Be good, everybody.


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